Jewish History

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 7–28 | Cite as

Self-definition and self-defense: Jewish racial identity in nineteenth-century France

  • Lisa Moses Leff


This article examines how and why French Jews began to speak of themselves as a “race.” Though we often assume that Jewish racial identity was an invention of anti-Semites in the 1880s, Jewish publicists had in fact adopted this language as early as the 1820s. Far from unwittingly appropriating the language of their detractors, Jews borrowed the language of race from scholars neutral or sympathetic to their cause in ways that made sense in light of their larger strategies of self-defense. The scholars who pioneered modern race theory were not the late nineteenth-century Social Darwinists; they were romantic historians like the Thierrys and Michelet, who saw France as a nation composed of a plurality of peoples who had come together over time to form a unified nation. Race thus provided a framework for understanding difference as legitimate, useful and dignified at a moment when anti-Jewish publicists attacked Jews as anti-social and immoral people who brought only harm to France. Looking at what French Jews borrowed from these early historians allows us to see the interconnections between Jewish self-defense and Jewish self-definition. In seeking to guarantee their rights and social status, French Jews appropriated new terms of understanding who they were.


Social Status Early Historian Racial Identity Unify Nation Race Theory 
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Copyright information

© Springer 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lisa Moses Leff
    • 1
  1. 1.Southwestern UniversityGeorgetownUSA

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